08:36 PM EST Nov 27



By Blair Shewchuk
CBC News Online

More than a century after his death, Alexandre Dumas was reburied with state fanfare last month. The writer's remains were taken from a small graveyard in his home town of Villers-Cotterêts to France's tomb of honour at the grand Pantheon in Paris.

The procession was quite a spectacle, with colourful characters from novels like The Three Musketeers and The Count of Monte Cristo brought to life by actors in costumes parading down the street. The ceremony was a mix of celebration and sombre reflection, with French President Jacques Chirac admitting that recognition of Dumas was long overdue.

Our coverage referred to the author's struggle against racism, including details about his background as the grandson of a French nobleman and a Haitian slave. We and some other media outlets referred to his mulatto roots, which prompted this e-mail complaint from Yellowknife:

Are slaver terms commonly used by the CBC? From my experience, the CBC sets the high journalistic standards in this country. As a publicly funded institution, the CBC is supposed to uphold Canadian values. Racist terminology is not acceptable in my eyes, nor in the eyes of my fellow Canadians.

The author of this article makes reference to the celebrated Alexandre Dumas having a mixed background, but chose to use the slave term mulatto, from the Spanish word for mule. I can't speak for the other patriotic Canadians whom this author would call mules, but I take offence in the use of such dated and racist terminology.

I hope but doubt that the choice of this word was made through ignorance of its significance, or through error. In either case, there is always a little book known as a dictionary that can clear such matters up, as well as speaking to people of mixed background.

To me, mulatto is no different than saying half-breed, etc... I decided to check another news Web site (BBC) to see what terminology was used by them. The BBC referred to Dumas's mixed background as a reason for the delay in his honours, but did not use the plantation term of mulatto.

I must say that I am disappointed by the lack of judgment shown in the preparation of this article, and I am sure that it does not reflect the feelings of the CBC as a whole, as the CBC is as multicultural as Canada. I hope that next time the author or editor involved will think and do a little research into what they are writing and saying, instead of preparing hasty reports with offensive language. As for this term being acceptable, why not try asking someone who is supposedly mulatto to find out if they enjoy this objectifying label?

The forcefully argued letter includes some incorrect assumptions about how the story was prepared. An editor did, in fact, look up the word mulatto in the Canadian Oxford Dictionary.

But the e-mail does raise important questions about deciding which words fall into a pit of mutated language – terms that were once common but which have evolved into something now unacceptably insulting.


There is virtual consensus on the origins of mulatto. Most lexicographers believe it comes from Spanish and Portuguese words for mule, which in turn are based on the Latin term for the same animal, mulus. The word was first used about 400 years ago to label children who had one black (African) and one white (European) parent. A mule, of course, is the offspring of a horse and a donkey.

A few people think that mulatto actually springs from the Arabic word muwallad ("a person of mixed race"), and may be related to walada ( "to give birth to"). But most scholars doubt this. They point out that mulatto is almost certainly connected to Spain's central role in the Atlantic slave trade, and the desire to brand people based on the amount of white blood flowing through their veins. It's not surprising that individuals who felt superior enough to buy and sell other human beings would latch on to such a slur.

The complaint sent to the CBC included an excerpt from an online dictionary (encarta.msn.com) that defined mulatto as "a taboo term for somebody who has one black and one Caucasian parent." The e-mail suggests that anyone consulting a dictionary would be warned that the word is widely viewed as racist. It's interesting to note, however, that the same Web site's entry classified mulatto as "socially acceptable in the Caribbean Islands and other Latin American regions."

Modern dictionaries are often seen as mirrors, reflecting how we use the language. They include colloquial expressions, vulgarity and jargon. Terms considered "derogatory" or "offensive" are often clearly marked. How is mulatto viewed in North America right now? Four dictionaries commonly used in our newsrooms – the Canadian Oxford, the Canadian Gage, Merriam-Webster's, and the New Oxford – do not flag the word in any way. Whether a warning should be there, of course, is another matter.


A CBC TV foreign correspondent used the word mulatto when reporting on the reburial of Dumas in Paris. He inadvertently added an extra l in his script. One of our writers in Toronto double-checked the spelling by looking at the Canadian Oxford Dictionary. Although reference to "mule" was buried in the entry's etymology, there was no mention of it in the main definition. There was also no warning about the possibility of mulatto being considered racist.

Reuters and some other news organizations also used the word in their Dumas coverage. Associated Press didn't, but might have. Its 2000 stylebook merely advises journalists to avoid a capital "M" when writing mulatto because it's not the proper name of a nationality or people – unlike, say, African or Caucasian. The 2002 Canadian Press Stylebook offers identical guidance. "Note that black, mulatto, red, yellow and white do not name races and are lowercase," it says.

Capital letters, by the way, can be seen as a big deal in some contexts. The word Negro, for example, had a small "n" until a letter-writing campaign prompted the New York Times to change its policy in March 1930. All major publications in the United States and elsewhere gradually fell in line, notes Robert Burchfield, the former chief editor at the Oxford English Dictionary, in his 1989 book Unlocking the English Language. The word was eventually replaced by "black," which the Times and many others now keep lowercase.

Mulatto shows up in countless stories written for various news outlets, from CNN and Time magazine to the Washington Post and several large Canadian newspapers and magazines. The New York Times used it repeatedly in a 1998 editorial about Thomas Jefferson, who "wrote the Declaration of Independence while enslaving others," and who it turned out fathered a child with a mulatto slave "while maintaining that African-Americans were only marginally human and a threat to white racial integrity."

The e-mail we received points out that the BBC online service didn't use mulatto when reporting on Dumas. But a quick check reveals that the word is no stranger to the Web site's news pages. It surfaced in a BBC article last summer about Haiti.


Some words should be and are avoided because they're racist. As pointed out in a column on Siamese Twins, for instance, we would not use the term gypped for cheated because it originally referred to Gypsies. But other terms are not as easily tackled.

Last year, someone attacked the word Slav in one of our news stories, calling it an inappropriate term that was based on the Latin word for "captive" or slave (sclavus). Although it's true that millions of people in Eastern Europe are probably known as "Slavic" in English because of a conquest more than a millennium ago, banning the word on these grounds would leave writers and editors rather tightly restrained.

Authorities also point out that Slavs subscribe to a much happier history of their name. According to this etymology, Slav comes from the Indo-European word "kleu," which meant "to hear," and refers to a famous, faithful people who understood one another. Slava, by extension, is a term from the Balkans that conveys the ideas of "honour" and "renown."

If English speakers abandoned Slav and Slavic because of the ghost of slavery, what would we do about some other common words? Go hysterical? Hysteria, for example, has rather sexist roots. It was initially seen as a condition unique to women, which is why it's founded on the Greek word for "uterus" (hustera). Today, however, the term is not limited to men or women, girls or boys. In fact it's not even restricted to wild emotional fits. Something very amusing may be called "hysterical," which reminds us that old words give birth to new meanings.

Then there's language that merely sounds offensive to some. Niggardly, for instance, means "small, cheap or unkind." It's based on a Middle English word, nigon, which scholars believe is probably tied to the Scandinavian term for petty worrying or complaining, niggle. And getting something scot free has nothing to do with Scotland. In Old Norse, a scot was a type of tax. If we stopped using words like these because a few people might misinterpret them, caution would be hoisted to new heights. Under these conditions, the ass in assumption would stick out and might be forced to take a seat, along with some other perfectly harmless words.


Deciding whether a term is inappropriate requires much more than reviewing its etymology. A classic example is the intensely contemptuous noun and adjective "nigger," which the 1998 New Oxford Dictionary of English defines as "one of the most racially offensive words in the language."

Nigger is based on the French (negre) and Spanish (negro) words for "black" – both ultimately from Latin, niger. It has carried hurtful and hateful meaning since the 17th century, and still causes some people to squirm just reading or hearing it.

To insist that the word be suddenly embraced by all solely because the original meaning ("black") is inoffensive would be farcical. To claim that any word with an unpleasant etymology, such as mulatto, should be automatically rejected because of its original meaning may be equally absurd.

There has been a recent campaign to give new currency to nigger by some members of the African-American community, but the argument is not based on etymology. In his 2002 book Nigger – The Strange Career of a Troublesome Word, for instance, Harvard law professor Randall Kennedy argues that the term should no longer be treated as taboo. Salvaging it, he says, would not only educate people about their past but also give them more power over their future:

"There is much to be gained by allowing people of all backgrounds to yank 'nigger' away from white supremacists, to subvert its ugliest denotation, and to convert the N-word from a negative into a positive appellation"

Prof. Randall Kennedy

So far, this movement appears far from inclusive. As the 1998 New Fowler's Modern English Usage puts it, "The whole world knows now that the word is offensive when applied by a white person to a black, but that it may be used without offence by one black person of another."


A few terms that describe children with mixed ancestry are uncontroversial, probably because they're neutral. In Canada, Métis has been used since the earliest fur-trading days to describe those with aboriginal and European blood. The French word, which means "mixed," was entrenched in the 1982 Constitution Act. A similar Spanish word, mestizo, has referred to people of European and Native American descent for centuries. It comes from the Latin word for "mixed" (miscellus, as in miscellaneous).

Creole, which has been broadened to describe various blends of people and languages over the years, is believed to be Spanish and Portuguese for "breed," based on the Latin creare ("create").

Half-breed, once common, is now considered offensive. Half-caste still crops up, even though "caste" is Latin for pure – implying that mixing skin colour contaminates us. It's an attitude that's helped perpetuate distrust and hatred between humans. Governments were quick to pass (and slow to repeal) laws against interracial couplings, known as miscegenation, and societies seemed interested in measuring drops of blood. A quadroon was a quarter black, the child of a mulatto and a white person. An octoroon was an eighth black, the child of a quadroon and a white person. Census takers once jotted down such absurd classifications with a large measure of earnestness and not a bit of embarrassment.

A few people have coined their own categories. Star golfer Tiger Woods, often identified as "black," sees the world as more of a grey place. His mother is Thai, and his father's family has a mix of African, Caucasian and Native American blood. He calls himself Cablinasian – a combination of letters that stands for Caucasian, black, Indian and Asian. Woods may stand alone on a fairway, but he's got lots of company off it. As columnist George F. Will said a few years ago, "Trace your pedigree back far enough, you may find that you are an omelet of surprising ingredients."

Today, some have gravitated toward interracial as a kind of catch-all category. But critics point out that the very notion of race is troublesome, and have suggested the word appear in quotation marks to highlight its questionable nature:

"Race is a term weighed down by the history of European imperialism and the pseudo-scientific hierarchization of people of different skin colours that was used to rationalize it. Race is unquestionably an imprecise concept, and arguably an irrelevant one."

Margery Fee and Janice McAlpine
1997 Oxford Guide to Canadian English Usage

Following this advice, then, it would be more meaningful to say that someone is an African-American or a Jamaican-Canadian instead of black. But most usage guides point out that terms like "white" and "black" remain widely accepted in both Canada and the United States. In Bermuda coloured is considered the correct term for a mulatto. In South Africa, Cape Coloured is capitalized, and refers to people with mixed bloodlines. English around the globe is not exactly monochromatic.


"Colour is the most obvious of all racial differences," notes lexicographer Jonathon Green in his book Words Apart – The Language of Prejudice. "It has justified untold massacres, enslavements, crusades and pious missions. ... In linguistic terms it has generated, probably to no one's great surprise, more slurs than any other category of vilification."

It's a pretty good bet that mulatto began this way. One can imagine it was originally accompanied by snickering, as innocent children were labelled "mules" by adults who felt superior to those they considered lowly hybrids.

But as we often discover with language, time passes, etymology is forgotten, and new denotations and connotations emerge. Most major dictionaries in North America and Britain list mulatto as an inoffensive description of ancestry. Newsroom stylebooks published by organizations like Canadian Press, Associated Press, and Reuters don't discourage the word, only a capital M. And some people not only proudly call themselves mulatto, they actively promote it as their term of preference on several Web sites.

There has, however, been a trend to ditch the word, according to Fowler's: "With the abandonment of colonialist attitudes in the 20th century, mulatto, once commonly used by the great seafarers and writers of the past – Drake, Dampier, etc; Defoe, Thackeray, Stevenson, etc. – for a person of mixed white and black parentage, has virtually dropped out of use. The mood of the century has been to move towards the acceptance of whatever neutral terms are available."

CBC's policy is to avoid mentioning skin colour, ethnic background, and so forth in news stories unless it's relevant. Racist and other insulting language is also shunned. But the corporation's Journalistic Standards and Practices handbook doesn't try to list objectionable words and phrases because, as noted in section 4.1 on Good Taste, "public acceptance in this area is always changing." A key question, then, is whether mulatto is intrinsically offensive.

The corporation's newly created Online Language Advisory Board, made up of senior editorial staff who work on the Web site, will wrestle with this at a meeting in the new year. Should the word be banned on CBC.ca? Should journalists be warned to follow specific guidelines before using the term, such as limiting it to direct quotations or historical contexts? Or should it be treated no differently from, say, Métis?

To outlaw mulatto because of Spanish and Latin roots few are probably aware of has a tinge of breeding enforcement about it, like the old laws against mixing races. It suggests that our language must be kept pure, clean of anything that could be remotely read as offensive by one group with a knowledge of etymology.

On the other hand, it may be best to avoid describing people as mulatto in news stories, not merely because the term originally meant mule but because it shores up pseudo-scientific attempts to classify us by blends of skin colour. People who identify themselves this way, of course, have every right to do so. But others have an equally valid prerogative to steer clear of the word, the same way they would give quadroon or octoroon a wide berth.

In a story about South Carolina removing a ban on interracial marriages, then, we would probably mention "mulatto" since the term was included in the section of the state's 1895 constitution that was finally amended in 1998. But when profiling a writer like Alexandre Dumas, we could easily avoid labels and stick to facts – that his grandfather was a French aristocrat who lived in Santo Domingo, that his grandmother was a Haitian slave, and that this mixed heritage left him an outcast in 19th century Europe.

Dumas, of course, was very familiar with the term mulatto. After suffering yet another dig about looking more black than white he's said to have retorted:

"Yes, of course, my father was mulatto, my grandfather was a Negro, and my great-grandfather was an ape. You see, sir, my family began where yours left off."

Even in death, the author of The Three Musketeers reminds us that words can be hurtful and divisive. Tous pour un, un pour tous? All for one, one for all, indeed.

(Dec. 26, 2002)

Read letters about Mulatto and Malignity

Note: In the spring of 2003, our Online Language Advisory Board ruled on mulatto.

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